Series: Madison Cruz Mystery #2
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Can't a girl get a pedicure without someone trying to kill her?
Question: When is it time for a relaxing spa with your FBI mom, and KGB grandmother?
Answer: When they've been trying to outshoot each other.
But when Madison discovers the spa employees are not who they seem, things go from dangerous, to deadly!
A humorous mystery, laced with romantic comedy.
What readers are saying
“A light fun entertaining heroine who finds herself in improbable but funny situations…Bottom line is you need to try this series.”
“Another winner by Lucy Carol. She has a quirky and sarcastic sense of humor that I just love.”
“Artfully written and I can't wait for the next book to come out!”
“Laugh yourself silly. Great reads!”
Madison tried to be a good girl, damn it. She told herself to go along with it: don’t complain, don’t spoil everyone’s fun, don’t tell everyone they were all going to die.
As their enclosed gondola rounded to the top of the giant Ferris wheel, she convinced herself that she was pulling it off; that no one knew about her panic. As long as she kept her eyes away from the four glass walls surrounding them, resisting the urge to look down at the ground, she’d be fine. Thank God the floor wasn’t glass too.
There was a nice paycheck at the end of this gig, although she’d have to give Phil a piece of her mind when it was over. He knew damn well she had a fear of heights, but he had let her think the photo shoot would take place in the restaurant at the foot of the Ferris wheel. She’d like to think her agent would look out for her sanity as well as her employment, but she wasn’t too surprised. Phil would book his own grandmother for a dog fight if the price were right.
The costume she wore was a Blue Heron, Seattle’s official bird. It was her job to pose for publicity pictures with Iris Alexander, the wealthy owner of the soon-to-be-built Blue Heron Mall. Iris’s sleek brown hair reflected the sunlight as they sat together, glass wall behind them. A sweep of high-rise buildings filled the background. The morning sun ignited the dazzle of the city.
“Hey, bird person,” said an irritated voice, breaking Madison’s concentration. She looked up at the thin, blond photographer as he lowered his camera. With a big sigh he said, “Would you please stop staring at the floor?”
She took a deep breath and fixed her eyes on him, trying to ignore the glass walls in her peripheral vision.
“That’s right. Look at me. Let us see those pretty green eyes.” He aimed the camera, his voice taking on a cheerful quality. “You and the client person… celebrating… you’re so happy…”
Madison concentrated. Look at the camera, look at the camera…
“Okay, now you’re a deer in the headlights,” he said, rubbing his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, panicking for new reasons. A big paycheck was at stake here, so she had to get a grip. Think of the money, think of the money.
“I’m happy now, see?” She put on her most dazzling smile. “Celebrating…” As she turned her head to show the client her gorgeous smile, she smacked Iris’s forehead with the long skinny beak. “Oh! Sorry, Iris!”
With a subtle jerk of her head, Iris remained composed, leaning away from Madison to smooth down her hair, its shoulder length cut falling perfectly back into place. She smiled politely and motioned to her nearby assistant. “A little help here?”
The assistant stood up to a partially bent position, her flawless skin and deep ruby lips suggesting her attention to detail. The gondola was not tall enough to stand fully upright in, unless a person was under five foot four, which the assistant clearly was not. She came forward to check Iris’s perfect hair, pretending to fix something. With a sharp glance at Madison, the assistant’s gray eyes conveyed disapproval. Then stepping back to her seat next to the photographer, she scribbled a note on a clipboard.
Madison wondered if those notes were about her. She felt tattled on.
Dramatic sighs came from the photographer. “We only have a few more minutes before they start to rotate the wheel again,” he said, looking at Madison. “Please don’t make me lose my shot.”
“Troy dear, I’m not worried,” said Iris, leaning back in, close to Madison. “You always manage to pull off miracles.”
He smiled. “That’s why you’re my favorite client person. You have faith in me.”
“And it helps that she rented the entire wheel,” said Madison in a sunny voice, “so our gondola can stay at the top.”
All three turned to look at her in silence. She gently flapped her wings on her thighs, noting how difficult it was to maintain credibility when you’re dressed like a bird. “I was just saying how lucky we are,” she added.
The assistant looked down and scribbled another note.
Madison could feel the headpiece of her costume coming loose, causing the beak to droop. But with feathers for hands she needed help to fix it.
“Okay, let’s try this again,” said Troy.
“Um, could I get some help from the assistant person?” she asked. “My head piece is getting wobbly.”
“Excuse me?” The assistant’s face went hard. “I have a name. It’s Catherine Gabrielle.”
Madison’s headpiece continued to fall forward. She pushed it back up with her feathered appendage. “I’m sorry Catherine, I didn’t mean—”
“Ca-ther-ine Ga-bri-elle,” she said slowly, looking Madison in the eye. There seemed to be an expectation, so Madison repeated the name while the assistant joined in unison.
“Ca-ther-ine Ga-bri-elle,” they said.
More sighs from Troy. “Client person, while they’re working this out, would you scoot forward in your seat, please?” he asked pleasantly. “That’s it. Big pretty smile. When the bird person is ready, we’ll have her leaning over right behind you. Those blue feathers will make your eyes pop.”
Madison shoved her headpiece back up, harder this time. “Never mind about the head piece,” she said in resignation. “This is fine.” She leaned behind Iris, trying not to look at the window, not look at the floor, not be a deer in the headlights. Instead she focused on pleasant thoughts. Plot Phil’s demise, plot Phil’s demise…
“Bird person, turn your head to a profile behind Iris’s head… no… please don’t shut your eyes… come on. That’s it. Now tilt your beak upward so that—”
Suddenly the gondola vibrated as the giant Ferris wheel began to turn again. Madison jumped, throwing her winged arms up with a scream, propelling herself away from the glass and into Iris and the photographer.
The assistant took a note.
* * *
“Phil, you don’t understand,” said Madison into her cell phone. “They’d have nothing to complain about if you hadn’t booked me for a photo shoot in a glass cage, 175 feet up in the air!”
She threw her tote bag onto her bed and pulled the hairband from her ponytail. Her shiny dark hair spilled over her shoulders while she tried to rub the tension out of her head with one hand.
“You should be grateful,” he said in his Boston street accent. “That was a fantastic gig for you. I’m always looking out for my little Chocolate Mint.” Phil often likened her pale green eyes, fringed with black lashes, to chocolate mints.
“Don’t ‘Chocolate Mint’ me,” she said. “I was terrified. Afterward, I couldn’t stop apologizing to Iris.”
“And here I thought the scariest part would be working with Iris Alexander herself,” said Phil. “You could get pointers on how to eat your rival for lunch from what I hear.”
“At least she was the nicest of the three of them,” said Madison. She dug around inside her tote bag looking for the gift envelope that Nika, her new Russian grandmother, had given her.
“Well she plays hardball in all her business interests, I’ll tell you that,” said Phil. “Having money ain’t enough for her. Iris likes to win.”
Madison sighed. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to not worry about money.”
“Which is why I get you good gigs.”
“And why I do them even if they’re up in the air. But have a heart next time, will you, Phil? You know I have a hard time with heights.”
“Yeah? Well, how about paychecks? You have a hard time with those too? That’s going to be a big one, you know. Jen almost killed me when I gave the job to you instead of her.”
“Well maybe you should’ve given it to her. Then you wouldn’t be getting complaints from Ca-ther-ine Ga-bri-elle.”
She found the envelope and exhaled in relief. It held the potential to make this all go away. It was a day pass for two people to a luxury spa. She and her girlfriend Spenser had been invited to meet up with Nika and Madison’s mother, Ann, for a special afternoon of pampering.
“You kidding?” said Phil. “I can’t trust Jen with classy clients, you know that. The complaints would’ve been about being trapped in that glass cage with a naked maniac.”
“You might have a point,” said Madison.
“You know Jen. There’s no gig that she thinks can’t be made better by taking everything off.”
“Phil, I’m just saying that I can’t do my best work when I’m scared.”
“Come on, Minty,” his voice softened, “I knew it’d be a little tough for you, but I also knew that you always pull through, girl. And this time is no exception.”
“How can you say that? The assistant called you and ratted me out. They may withhold payment over this.”
“I say it because Troy called me after I hung up with the assistant, and he’s thrilled. They don’t dare withhold payment if they want to use that shot.”
“I don’t get it,” said Madison. “What shot? The whole thing was a screw up.”
“That last shot was the money shot, Minty. He loves it. Iris Alexander loves it.”
“The last… what?” She sat down on the bed.
“He said it was an action shot, that you were freakin’ out, throwing your arms up or something. But it looked like the Blue Heron opened its wings like the stupid bird is blessing Iris or some garbage, and they can see the head piece and beak, but your scream was hidden behind Iris’s head, her beaming smile, blah blah blah.” He took a breath. “Doesn’t matter. They’re happy, you understand? You’ll be seeing that shot all over Seattle. They’re even buying bus ads. How do you like that, eh? My little Minty on a bus.”
“It worked out?” She couldn’t believe it.
“Sure did. But now I gotta find extra gigs for Jen to make it up to her or she’ll make my life hell after what happened at her gig.”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“She was hoping you’d chicken out at the last minute on account of the height and all that, so she made changes to her costume to look like a Blue Heron.”
“How can a stripper look like a Blue Heron?”
“She put lots of blue feathers in key places, if you know what I mean. Assumed she could rush over to the Blue Heron gig and be a sexy little birdie or something. But she used the wrong glue for that sort of thing and those feathers wouldn’t come off during her dance without a lot of yanking and cursing.”
After hanging up, Madison got ready for the spa. The morning’s gig was behind her now, and she could let herself relax a little, maybe get some of that tension out of her shoulders. She tried to let the good news sink in that the photo shoot wasn’t as disastrous as she’d thought. The shot would even be used as a bus ad, although no one would be able to tell it was Madison. She pursed her lips as she gave that some thought.
Looking at the clock she noted it was almost time to make the obligatory scream call. After all, Spenser and she were about to be partaking of the most talked about luxury spa in Seattle, The Lazy Petal. She had to hurry.
She changed her clothes and packed her bag for the spa, hoping she could afford a massage. As she thought about the bus ad, she decided she was glad no one would recognize her since she didn’t want to tell her mom about it anyway. They were getting along better than they ever had, and she didn’t want to ruin it by reminding her mother of the main thing she still disapproved of: Madison’s job.
She was eager to see if her mother and Nika were getting along better than the last time she’d seen them together, which was at a gun range. Her mom had finally come to accept the truth about Nika as her own biological mother, and had invited her to some target practice. This seemed like an odd getting-to-know-you outing, but as uncomfortable as Madison was around guns, she couldn’t resist the invitation to come along.
No doubt about it, the shock of how Nika entered their lives had thrown a new light on everything. Watching her mother take tentative steps toward forming a relationship with Nika made Madison proud of her. Ann may have spent her days fighting crime as an FBI Special Agent, but this was the bravest thing Madison had ever seen her do.
Her cell phone doodled a happy tune. Darn it, Spenser beat her to it. She picked up her phone, hit the answer button and put the phone to her ear. Silence. She waited the customary two seconds because she-who-makes-the-call gets to scream first. Spenser screamed into the phone and Madison screamed back and hung up. At twenty-four years old they still hadn’t grown tired of this little ritual left over from their high school days.
She was glad that Spenser would be there to share in all the fun. It made Madison happy that Ann was giving Nika a chance, but they needed more time, and the spa was as good a place as any for everyone to continue getting to know each other.
What could possibly go wrong?
“Oh my God, Spenser. It’s him,” Madison whispered. “Stay in line, and don’t move.” Her breathy whisper had panic in it.
Madison ducked behind Spenser as the spa manager in black uniform passed the line of women at the check-in counter.
“What, the manager?” whispered Spenser. “Why?”
“Act natural,” said Madison. “I swear it’s him.”
“Him who?” whispered Spenser.
“You’re not acting natural.”
“Me? What about you?”
“I’m not supposed to be acting natural,” said Madison as she hid her face behind Spenser’s blond hair. “I’m hiding, for God’s sake.”
“What guy, damn it?” said Spenser.
“The guy I buried alive.”
“Oh.” Spenser blinked, as the thought seemed to sink in. “So… you think he’s still mad?”
In the posh front lobby, the line moved forward, bringing Madison and Spenser closer to the check-in counter. Black uniformed clerks with pleasant smiles greeted each patron, the plastic clacking of keyboards filling the room as they checked them in.
Stepping behind the counter, the dark haired manager mumbled to a lady in black uniform. Her neat ponytail swept across her shoulder as she turned her head toward him.
“Clare, in case I don’t see Lettie,” said the manager, “could you remind her I need to leave for a dental appointment this afternoon?” Looking grim, he walked away.
“It’s safe,” said Spenser. “He’s gone. Reminds me of a cute college professor I had.”
Madison came out from behind Spenser and snapped her fingers, remembering. “Frank Bergman. That was his name.”
“Don’t say ‘was’ as if he died. He’s not the dearly departed.”
“No. He’s the pissed and present.”
“It was an accident, Madison. It could happen to anybody.”
Madison looked her in the eye, making her point with her silence.
“Okay, you’re right,” said Spenser. “This stuff only happens to you. But still, it was an accident. The prop malfunctioned.”
“The crew tried to explain it to him but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Kind of hard to listen when you’re traumatized. But that was, what… two years ago?”
Madison looked around, her eyes full of concern. “If he sees me, don’t say anything about Mom and Nika in front of him. I don’t want him to involve them.”
“Come on,” said Spenser, pushing Madison’s dark hair back behind her shoulders. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
“Well I did, you know, sort of bury him and stuff.”
“Well, yeah, there’s that.”
“Surely he has lots of administrative things to do in his office?” said Madison, trying to encourage herself.
“And while he’s in his office we’ll all be getting pampered in The Lazy Petal,” said Spenser, gently shaking Madison’s shoulders.
Madison’s smile slowly returned. Coming to the front of the line, she handed the day pass to a clerk whose name badge read Clare. Clare smiled and entered their information in the computer. Looking at her screen, she asked, “Are you Madison Cruz?”
Her brow creased. She typed some more and stared. “I’m sorry. I should probably get the manager to help me.”
“I’d rather not bother him,” said Madison, trying to think fast. “It’s just a day pass from my grandmother. If it’s expired I’ll pay for it myself.” She felt Spenser squeeze her arm. They both knew how expensive that would be.
“Quite the opposite,” said Clare. “There’s a new account set up for you. All services are available to you every day, and all charges are waived.” She put her fingertips to her cheek. “I’ve never seen one like this.” She looked up at Madison. “Please forgive me for not knowing who you are.”
Madison’s face felt stuck. She finally managed to say, “What?”
“Are you an actress?” said Clare.
“Well, I… was a bird this morning.”
An older woman with perfect makeup and gray streaked hair in a stylish bob appeared behind the counter and looked over Clare’s shoulder. “Well, what have we here?” Her eyes lit up with interest as she scanned the screen. Her name tag on her black uniform jacket read, Lettie, Assistant Manager.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” said Clare. “None of the usual codes are working. I’ve never seen an account like this.”
Clare stepped back as Lettie took over. She typed with impeccable nails, her eyes scanning the screen. “Who set this up for you, dear?” She looked at Madison.
“I don’t know. There must be some mistake,” said Madison. “My grandmother gave me a day pass for two. That’s all.”
“Your grandmother’s name?”
“Veronica Fedora.” Lettie typed as Madison spoke. “We call her Nika. She has a permanent day pass and can bring visitors if she likes.”
Lettie scanned the screen. “Yes, I see that here. And now it’s been extended to you. Curious.” She looked at Madison. “Your grandmother has no address.”
Madison had no answer for her. What would be safe to say? She wanted to wrap her arms around herself, but resisted.
“Is she friends with the owner?” asked Lettie.
“I don’t know,” said Madison, her discomfort growing. “She said it was an added thank you for work she did for the owner.” She almost wished Frank Bergman would come out and make a fuss. Anything to change this subject.
Lettie held her gaze on Madison for a moment, her expression neither approving nor disapproving. Finally she said, “Such privilege is rare around here.”
Lettie turned to Clare. “Frank must have set it up. You’ll need to use the VIP code to check them in.”
“I thought that code was only reserved for the owner, or her family,” said Clare.
“Yes,” said Lettie. “It was.” She returned her gaze to Madison. “What does your grandmother do?”
Answering Lettie’s question made her nervous. Nika was ex-KGB, and Madison wasn’t comfortable trying to describe the employment Nika had turned to after the KGB was shut down years ago. It could be called private investigating at best, mercenary spy work at worst. Had Nika and Ann had that talk yet? She’d like to be a fly on the wall for that one.
“Dance teacher,” Madison blurted out. “She’s a dance teacher.” Oh that’s just brilliant Madison. Stupid, stupid…
“Really?” said Lettie, looking confused.
“Um, yeah, she really knows how to do a good shuffle ball-change.”
Lettie and Clare both stared at her. Even Spenser was staring at her. Anxious to get out of there, Madison asked, “So, is everything okay now?”
“Certainly,” said Lettie, shaking it off and entering the correct code for a VIP account.
She turned a cool smile their way. “Welcome to The Lazy Petal.”
* * *
“I should be thrilled. I should be happy. So why am I nervous instead?” Madison closed the door to her locker, having changed out of her street clothes and into the required spa robe and hair towel. The front check-in lobby led straight into the locker room, so they hadn’t actually seen the main spa area yet. Spenser was still neatly folding everything and putting it in her locker, arranging her belongings into some kind of order that to Madison, as usual, seemed like overkill. But she knew Spenser was more peaceful when everything was neat and tidy.
“I think it’s because of the way that older lady acted, as if the day pass were suspicious. She should’ve been happy for you. I don’t know. It did feel odd.”
“I keep thinking there’s some kind of mistake and I’ll accidentally run up a bill that’s bigger than my rent.”
“In this place, that’s not hard to imagine, but you should talk to your grandmother. Let her assure you that everything’s okay,” said Spenser. “Besides, she must have danced pretty hard for this.” Her eyes held laughter in them like she could barely contain herself, and in a very unladylike manner, she snorted, falling into giggles.
Madison rolled her eyes. “I had to say something about what she does. That was the first thing that entered my head.”
“And what are you going to do about Frank?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well she said Frank must have set up your account. If he did, then he knows you’re here. If he didn’t, then… well…” Spenser trailed off.
“It’s all right,” said Madison. “You can say it.”
“If he didn’t, that would only leave Nika, right? And she probably knows how to do stuff like that, right?”
Madison was quiet for a moment. “We don’t really know her very well, yet. That’s true. But she wouldn’t risk causing trouble over something as stupid as a spa pass. So you’re probably right about Frank.” She didn’t know what else she could do but ride out the day. If she ran into Frank, she hoped he would be cordial, and who knows, he might even let her explain that awful day.
Minutes later they left the locker room for the main hallway, stepping out barefooted onto a floor with threads of red embedded in pale marble tiles.
“Holy mackerel,” said Madison, coming to a stop in the doorway. The door swung closed, gently hitting her backside like a push of encouragement. “This hallway is wider than my bedroom.”
“Everything is wider than your bedroom.”
Recessed lighting hidden along the edges of high ceilings threw a soft glow on the walls.
“Look at this place,” said Spenser, turning in a circle, her eyes sparkling.
“Take it easy, Spensy. You might hit critical mass and implode.”
“I’ll die happy.”
“But I would miss you,” said Madison. “Should I throw down some trash and break the spell?”
“You do, and I’ll shoot you.”
“No you won’t. That would get blood on the pretty floor.”
“It’s gorgeous.” Spenser looked down at the marble tiles. “Looks like streaks of raspberry puree swirled on a frothy cream.”
“I feel guilty walking on it,” said Spenser.
“I want to eat it,” said Madison.
“I think I could still shoot you. Blood coordinates with raspberry. You could get shot in here and match the decor.”
“Wow,” said Madison. “They thought of everything.”
Soft harp music followed them down the hallway, reminding Madison of glass slippers and fairytales. Barefooted ladies passed by in identical robes and hair towels, some of them carrying glasses of wine, some of them with creams or mud on their faces.
On the left side of the hallway was a wall made of rounded gray stones on the bottom half, while the upper half was glass, covered in fluffy white curtains so sheer Madison could see through them to golden points of candlelight that shimmered next to the deep blue of the pools. It was like seeing heaven through a white fog.
In a breathy voice, Spenser said. “It’s like a dream. How do you get in there?”
“I’m not sure. I think we’re on the south end right now, but this hallway is supposed to run along the south and east sides of the pool room, so I guess we’ll come to the entryway if we keep walking.”
“But that’s huge. Look how far the hallway stretches,” said Spenser. “Why would they need a pool that large?”
“It’s not one pool, it’s four. All free of chemicals, can you believe it? And each pool is a different temperature depending on your preference.”
Spenser knit her brows. “But how can that work? The chemicals I mean, how do they keep it clean?”
“The brochure said something about copper and silver ions.” Madison shrugged. “I don’t understand it, but wouldn’t it be cool to go swimming without our eyes getting red?” She looked to the right side of the hallway where all the doors to all the specialty salons were. “There’s the nail salon. We’re too early for our appointments, but let’s go see it.”
“You go ahead,” said Spenser, “I want to go touch the curtains and see if they’re made of polyester.”
As Madison approached the nail salon, a pretty young woman in black uniform and honey brown hair changed old flowers for fresh ones on a table near the door. Madison turned to call Spenser when she heard a loud pop of pottery hitting the floor and the clink and clatter of pieces scattering. The young woman who had knocked over the vase stood staring at the flowers and the broken pieces of vase. Some of the shards had skittered across the hallway to where Madison stood.
Madison quickly crouched down to pick up the pieces, moving around the floor to wherever she spied another piece, afraid that someone might come along and step on them. Carefully kneeling, she was filling her palm with several small pieces when Lettie the assistant manager emerged from the nail salon and stood in the doorway. Her icy gaze at the young woman did not look happy.
“Brittany,” she said, quiet and exasperated as if in a secret rage. “Now what?”
“Why didn’t you tell me he was quitting?” said Brittany, petulant, ignoring the broken vase.
Lettie’s voice grew frosty. “Is that what this is about? I’ve run interference with Frank to clear the way for you, and you’re willing to gamble the job for a snit fit?”
“I do want the job, it’s just that—”
“If you can’t stay off Frank’s radar—”
With the pieces of broken pottery in her hand, Madison stepped up, interrupting Lettie. “I’m so clumsy, please forgive me,” she said, placing the pieces on the table. “I just wanted to smell the flowers.”
“Oh—” said Lettie. She seemed surprised, looking quickly at Brittany and back to Madison. “Please don’t worry yourself.” She smiled. “Brittany will clean it up. Continue enjoying your stay with us, and don’t give it another thought.” To Brittany she gave a tight smile. “I’m sorry, dear. I thought you’d broken another one. Resume your duties.” She turned to leave, but looked back for a moment, silent. She walked down the hallway, rounded a corner and disappeared.
Brittany looked at Madison with confusion. “Why did you do that?”
“It sounded like you were about to lose your job over a broken vase,” said Madison. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
Expecting a thank-you, she was startled when Brittany spit out, “That was an expensive vase. Maybe I was trying to break it. Maybe I’m tired of the shit I have to put up with around here. Did you ever think of that?”
Not sure how to respond, Madison could only stare in disbelief before answering. “I… no. That thought never crossed my mind.”
“I hate this place,” said Brittany.
Embarrassed that she’d somehow screwed up, Madison still couldn’t understand such a contemptuous response. “I’m sorry I said anything. I was only trying to help.”
As Spenser walked up, Brittany said, “Things are not what they seem around here. You should stay out of it.” Without another word the girl left through the doorway into the nail salon.
“What the hell was that?” Spenser asked.
“Good question,” said Madison, confused.
“Another glorious welcome to The Lazy Petal?”
“More like red flags. Some people leave big hints that you should stay away from them.”
Knowing they had manicures and pedicures scheduled for later, Madison couldn’t help but hope that Brittany would be gone by then.
“Forget her,” said Spenser. “Let’s go find the massage rooms. We have appointments.”
“Just promise me no more challenging people to deal with,” said Madison. “I think I’ve met my quota for today.”
“That’s a good way to look at it. You’ve met your quota. Everything will be smooth going from here on out.”
“Oh man. You had to say that.”